The League of Homunculi Book 1: Tom Thumb’s Blues
The Legend: In the days of good King Arthur, the magician Merlin summoned to Britain a collection of the smallest individuals known to man. These he offered to the king as spies, a secret network of miniature heroes undertaking missions against the Round Table’s enemies. Merlin called this strange menagerie…the League of Homunculi.
And this is how they came to be.
* * * * *
The League of Homunculi
Sir Thomas Thumb sat in the palm of the queen’s hand. All around him were the enormous forms of knights, nobles, and peasant-folk, gathered on the green for the spring festival. At his vantage, the little man could hardly see anything but there was an air of excitement and activity. He could barely contain himself as he heard the blare of the trumpeters announcing the beginning of a joust. Once more, he could live vicariously through his heroes and forget, for a time, the strange and unfortunate circumstances of his life.
At three inches tall, Tom was by far the most unusual of the fabled Knights of the Round Table, defenders of the kingdom of Britain. Boyishly handsome (if one could see him in detail), Tom wore a tiny hand-stitched tunic, a doublet of thistledown, apple-rind stockings, mouse-pelt boots, and a small feathered cap worn at a rakish angle. At his side was a sewing needle that served as his sword. He was the very image of a noble knight, yet one cast in miniature, no bigger than a human thumb.
Tom was a relatively new addition to the court of Camelot. He had been found in the belly of a fish that was served up to King Arthur Pendragon himself. This monster of the deep—actually a salmon, though Tom felt the name did not do the beast justice—had swallowed him up while he was swimming in the river near his parents’ cottage. The following hours were a blur of impenetrable darkness, disorienting motion, sizzling heat, and finally, light once again as the king sliced into his supper. Arthur and his entourage had cried out in alarm when a tiny human-like figure emerged from the fish’s abdomen, blinking in confusion.
“Wh-where am I? What’s happened?” Tom had babbled as his eyes readjusted to the sunlight. “I’m free? Heaven prosper you, good sir, for your assistance! What is your name? I would know my savior.”
“I am Arthur, King of the Britons,” the man stated.
Tom stared at him in astonishment. For a moment, he was silent. “Ha!” he exclaimed at last. “That’s a good one. A fine jest. Now, who are you really?”
Arthur laughed heartily at this. Whatever this tiny creature was, the king developed a liking for him immediately.
Tom was quite relieved to be rescued from the fish and the king and queen were instantly taken with the strange little man. But more intrigued by far was the king’s advisor, Myrddin Emrys, known to many as Merlin.
Tom was, in fact, Merlin’s creation. The aged magician had given life to the tiny being through magic and alchemy many years ago, growing him in a test tube and allowing him to gestate in secret formulas Merlin alone knew. He had offered him as a son to a childless couple that once showed the wizard kindness. In truth, Merlin had spared no further thought on the little creature after this incident, leaving him to the care of his foster family. That Tom should find his way back to his maker all these years later was seen as a sign of providence. Merlin was still pondering the significance of this.
“The gods bring us together once again, young Thomas,” the sorcerer had once told the wee manikin. “To what end, I cannot guess. But I believe you may have a role to play in what is to come.”
“Yes, sir,” Tom said obediently, not truly understanding. This was often the case, for the wizard was prone to speaking in cryptic prophecies. “I shall endeavor to do my part.”
A role was indeed assigned to him, though not the one he may have desired. King Arthur made Tom the official court dwarf and tasked him with entertaining the nobility. It was a logical choice for one so small but hardly more dignified than the status of the foppish court jester, Dagonet. Tom’s only purpose was to provide amusement through the novelty of his size and he found himself often gawked at by the royals and their courtiers or performing tricks upon the tabletop. However small his contributions to court were though, the little man still made an impression. Tom’s bravery and good-hearted nature soon impressed the king and won him an honorary knighthood. In Arthur’s Britain, even the smallest of men was valued for the quality of his heart.
Tom still looked back on that day with fondness. Rather than using the flat of his sword, as he would in a normal knighting ceremony, Arthur lightly tapped Tom’s little shoulder with a bread knife.
“For your noble and admirable spirit and the many hours of merriment you have brought us,” the king said to the little man, “I dub thee Sir Thomas Thumb, Knight of Camelot.”
Of course, his knighthood was in name only. Tom could not accompany the warriors into battle with the Picts or Saxons or other foes of the realm, lest he be trodden on in the tumult of war. He could not defend fair maidens or liberate the oppressed. Slaying dragons or ogres was out of the question, for even squirrels proved formidable enemies to Tom. Occasionally, he was allowed to accompany the knights on hunting expeditions, riding upon a field mouse steed. But this was the extent of his involvement with their activities.
Despite his misgivings, his life at Camelot was an honorable one and Tom felt blessed. He was even paid a stipend that allowed his human foster parents to live quite comfortably. But even so, he could not shake the pangs of melancholy that occasionally plagued him. Tom had spent his whole life in a world of giants, seemingly the only person of his diminutive size. Although he had friends at court, the minuscule knight still felt very alone.
This particular day, with crowds of towering peasants and nobles gathered for the festival, Tom felt more out of place than ever. “Look, Sir Tom,” Queen Guinevere said, holding him higher over the heads of the spectators. “The match is about to begin!”
The king and queen were seated in their royal box near the jousting green behind the castle. Guinevere had carried Tom with her so that he might entertain her in between the festival’s events. She was rarely found without the tiny knight these days. The miniature man had become like a beloved pet to her, often held in her palm, sat upon her lap, or stashed safely in a pocket of her gown. For his part, Tom enjoyed the fair lady’s company, but he grew weary of being asked to dance in her hand or display his climbing prowess on household items.
“Who are the first competitors, your majesty?” Tom asked, cupping his hands to his mouth. He had to shout at the top of his tiny lungs to be heard over the din of the crowd.
“What’s that?” inquired Guinevere. She swept her hand closer to her ear and Tom clutched himself tightly against her thumb to keep from falling.
“Oh, the jousters?” the queen said. “The first two are Sir Gawain of Orkney and Sir Tristan of Lyonesse. See over there, where they’re donning their armor? Why, from this distance, they look as small as you, Tom!”
Guinevere tittered girlishly, closed one eye, and held a thumb and forefinger before her face. She squeezed them together, pretending to crush the small faraway figures.
“Look, I’m squashing Gawain’s head!”
“Er, yes,” Tom muttered. “Very droll.” He failed to appreciate the joke, wondering instead if his own head would pop like a grape between the lady’s fingers. He would have to make sure not to get on her bad side.
A few dozen yards away, Sir Gawain and Sir Tristan had mounted their horses and were guiding them into position for the joust. A maiden ran out onto the field and offered a silky scarf to Gawain as a token. The burly red-haired knight took the item and tied it carefully around his arm. He reached down to take the lady’s hand and kissed it. She blushed and giggled, then ran back to join her friends.
Tom watched this scene with a wistful expression. How he wished that could be him out there! The mouse he rode could never hope to keep pace with the horsemen of the king’s guard, nor could Tom attempt to lift a lance. And at his size, participation in jousts and games of skill were right out, save perhaps his battle with a stray cat the other morning. He’d managed to slice off a few whiskers before the queen arrived and shooed the animal away.
“Gawain is undefeated thus far but they say Tristan is a skillful rider,” said Guinevere. “Oh, this will be most exciting!” She clapped her hands together in delight, forgetting her petite passenger for the moment. Tom cried out as he was pressed between two massive palms. She hadn’t slapped hard but it was sufficient force to knock the wind out of him.
With an embarrassed gasp, the queen set him down on the table before her. “My apologies. Perhaps you should sit here. I get ever so worked up at tournaments.”
Tom tried to protest that he could no longer see the match but the woman could not hear him. The crowd roared as the knights rode out onto the field and the wee man could only use his imagination. He heard the thunderous hooves, the clang of metal, and the sharp snap of a splintering wooden lance. But he knew not which knight was the victor.
The little man wandered across the tabletop, seeking to relieve his boredom and frustration. Nearby, a silver plate was spread before him, piled high with a Cornish game hen, fresh-cooked bread, and a stack of steaming vegetables. Tom’s stomach growled and he considered climbing up onto the lip of the plate to steal a few bites. But he feared that, in her distracted state, the queen might mistake him for a parsnip and gobble him up.
Suddenly, the lady jumped to her feet, bumping against the side of the table. Tom lost his footing and fell forward, almost cracking his head on the edge of the plate.
“Gawain wins again?!” Guinevere cried. “How does he do it? Tristan almost had him!”
Angrily, she pounded the table with her fist. Tom had to scramble to the side lest he be flattened by this monstrous five-fingered juggernaut. The tabletop quivered with the impact. Such mishaps were commonplace for the little man, though his helplessness hurt his pride. Guinevere gazed down at him absently, unaware of how close he’d come to harm.
“Forgive me, Sir Tom. Where are my manners? You can’t see the joust from down there, can you?”
Gigantic feminine fingers closed about Tom’s body, hoisting him into the air with dizzying speed. Before he knew it, the woman had placed him atop her head. Tom stood knee-deep in strawberry blonde hair while his hostess giggled below. As the colossal queen shifted occasionally under his feet, he clung to a few silken strands for security. His head swam and he feared a possible drop down the length of her person. Even with the queen in a seated position, this was a significant distance for the tiny man. Far away, Tristan’s entourage attended to his wounds while a new challenger rode out to meet Gawain on the field.
“Ah, Sir Sagramore of Constantinople!” the lady exclaimed. “He’ll cut that big, Gaelic brute down to size!”
Tom gulped slightly, tried not to look down, and attempted to enjoy the match.
* * * *
After the day’s festivities, the king and queen retired back to the castle. Yet even then, Guinevere was loath to release her treasured pet knight. Seated on her throne, she idly rolled Tom back and forth in her hand, manipulating him as one might a small toy. Normally, the wee man would laugh or playfully fight against her fingers, as if dueling with tiny enemies. But this time, Tom’s only response was a sad little sigh. The queen ceased her game and lifted her hand higher until Tom was level with her bright blue eyes.
“What’s wrong, Sir Tom?” she asked. “You seem in an ill humour.”
“Forgive me, your majesty,” answered Tom, looking up at her lovely yet gigantic visage. Ringlets of strawberry blonde curls hung down upon Tom as she leaned closer. Their weight nearly knocked him over but he casually pushed the lady’s locks aside.
“I was merely thinking how grand it would be if I were not so small. Or, barring that, I dearly wish there were other folk my size. Then I would not feel so freakish and odd and alone.”
“You must not say such things about yourself. You are a wonder,” Guinevere insisted, kissing the top of his head affectionately. Enormous lips pressed down on the little warrior, enveloping half his head. As she pulled away, his hat affixed to her upper lip. Tom reached up to retrieve it but the giant face retreated too swiftly. A tiny, feathered cap was stuck to Guinevere’s mouth like a stray crumb. After a moment, she sensed its presence and returned it to Tom, far more dampened than previously.
King Arthur chuckled at this comical scene from the adjoining throne. “Aye, the lady speaks true,” he said. “You are a remarkable little fellow, Tom. And quite amusing.”
Tall and strong with a trim, regal beard, a commanding presence, the heart of a warrior, and the admiration of many, Arthur was everything Tom wished to be. He was the chivalrous ideal that his knights could aspire to, but which the tiny Tom could never achieve. The small manikin sighed once more.
“I suppose you’re right, my lord,” said Tom from Guinevere’s hand. “In any case, I should not wish for the impossible.”
“It’s not as impossible as you might think, Thomas,” added Merlin as he approached the dais where the king and queen were seated. The click of his staff against the tiles punctuated every word. The old druid was nearly lost beneath his thick white beard and flowing blue robes, yet he too had an air of strength and power that Tom envied. Golden, hawk-like eyes practically bored into the little man as his mentor and creator addressed him.
“I sensed your troubled thoughts today,” the enchanter said. “And I have been consulting my scrying pool for a solution. It might interest you to know that there are others like you.”
Others? Tom’s heart leapt at the idea. How could this be?
Merlin continued. “Magicians and alchemists the world over have perfected the creation of homunculi—miniature humans of artificial origin. Much like how I created you. Many others have attempted the craft and new life forms have been born through their arts. Even now, we are seeing the beginning of a new and distinctly minute race of man. I have been giving it some thought and I believe I have hit upon a use for these beings’…unique talents. Talents that might yet serve the isle of Britain.”
“You speak in riddles as ever, old friend,” said Arthur. “What are you getting at?”
“Madness perhaps,” Merlin admitted to his former pupil, “but an experiment worth pursuing. If you can spare Tom and me for a few days, I know where we can locate a few of these homunculi. Then we shall see if my ideas are mere folly. If nothing else, it would do Thomas some good to see others of his kind.”
“Oh, can I go with him, my liege?!” Tom cried excitedly, jumping to his feet. In his eagerness, the wee knight lost his balance and tumbled out of the queen’s hand. Guinevere tried to catch him but Tom slipped through her fingers and plummeted headfirst down the front of her dress. At this, the lady shrieked in surprise. Desperately, she fished about in her bodice for the vanished Tom, trying to maintain as much queenly dignity as was possible. Arthur stifled his laughter, lest he offend his wife.
Merlin pointedly cleared his throat and drew the king’s attention back to him. “Have we your leave to depart on this quest?”
“I don’t see why not,” said Arthur. “I should like to see what scheme you’re hatching this time, Merlin. Go with my blessing.”
“Soon, Arthur,” the magician vowed, “you will have the smallest and most unusual champions that e’er served any king.”
Arthur gazed back at his wife and saw tiny hands emerge from the neckline of her gown. These were soon followed by an embarrassed and bewildered little face. Tom frantically tried to climb free, but lost his grip and soon tumbled back down into the dress.
The king tried not to smile at Tom’s misfortune. He had heard of knights succumbing to the charms of fair damsels but this was ridiculous. Arthur wondered what possible use a group of such helpless little creatures could be. Yet he knew that Merlin had never steered him wrong.
Tom was finally freed from his predicament and hastily handed over to Merlin. Guinevere, her face flushed a deep crimson, vowed never to speak of the incident again.
* * * *
The following morning, Merlin brought Tom to the shore of a small stream that ran through the woods near Camelot. The little knight was puzzled as to their mode of transport. Merlin’s shoulder was sufficient for him but how was the old mage to make the journey? His question was soon answered for his mentor began to mutter an exotic incantation under his breath. The words were in Old Brythonic, the language of their ancestors, though Tom knew not what they meant.
In moments, a thick, impenetrable mist descended upon the woods and an eerie craft emerged from this miasma. It was a small wooden boat with the head of a swan at its prow. Tom could have sworn that no such skiff was visible on the stream seconds earlier but he knew better than to question Merlin.
As the narrow barge made landfall on the muddy bank, its occupant gradually came into view. Long, straight black hair framed a fair face that exuded calm and serenity. The lady wore robes of blue and a thin, golden circlet rested on her brow. Upon closer inspection, it was clear that this was no young maid. She was closer to middle age than the bloom of youth and her face was lined and somewhat careworn, her hair streaked with strands of grey. Yet her maturity had not dampened her beauty nor lessened the aura of power that surrounded her.
“Lady Viviane,” Merlin said, bowing to the leader of his druidic order. Tom recognized the name at once. This was the Lady of the Lake, the High Priestess of the sacred isle of Avalon. The king valued her counsel and aid almost as much as Merlin’s. It was she that had gifted Arthur with his enchanted sword Excalibur and who had raised Sir Lancelot, Camelot’s champion, as a foster son.
The lady took the old man’s hand as he helped her down from the boat. “Myrddin, my dear friend,” Viviane answered. It seemed she preferred his given British name rather than its Latinized form.
“It is good to see you,” she said with a beatific smile. “How do you fare these days?”
“Ach, we’ve finally gotten most of the subject-kings and barons in line,” the enchanter told her. “But King Lot is still scheming against the crown. It’s only a matter of time before the Saxons gear up for another invasion. And I don’t have to tell you of the threat posed by Avalon’s fallen sister, Lady Morgan. Even now, she is–”
“I meant you personally,” said Viviane. “How are you?”
“Oh,” Merlin stammered, taken aback. “I’m…fine, I suppose. Yourself?”
“No complaints,” she answered. Viviane reached out to touch Merlin’s arm compassionately. “Really, Myrddin, you must learn to relax now and then.”
“A wizard’s work is never done, my lady,” Merlin said wearily. “Things on Avalon are good then? How…how is your apprentice, Nimue?”
Viviane gave a knowing grin. “She is well. And still too young for you, you dirty old man.”
“Cailleach the hag-goddess would be too young for me, Viviane,” Merlin muttered. “Sometimes I think I’ve lived too long.”
Tom sensed his friend entering one of his dark moods and quickly interjected. “Lady Viviane,” the little knight said. “It is an honor to meet you at last.”
The woman turned towards Merlin’s shoulder, finally noticing the tiny figure perched there. “Ah, so this is he? Your wee homunculus? Let me get a good look at him. May I?”
As Merlin nodded, Viviane reached out a pale, slender hand that was several times as large as Tom. Her fingers were delicate yet deceptively strong as they wrapped tightly about his torso and lifted him into open air. Tom found being manhandled and passed about slightly off-putting, but being so small, he was often forced to endure it. At any rate, the softness of the lady’s skin was quite pleasant and he found himself brought closer to her pretty face. Viviane opened her fingers and allowed Tom to stand in her upturned hand. Sea-blue eyes as big as his head regarded him curiously and his hair and feathered cap were ruffled by the air from her nostrils overhead.
“How simply adorable,” the Lady of the Lake mused. “You’re quite the handsome little gentleman, Sir Tom. I could just eat you up!”
Tom winced slightly. At his size, this was very much a possibility. He’d be little more than a mouthful, gone in a gulp or two. His eyes drifted warily to her plush red lips, smiling almost as wide as he was tall.
“Oh, mercy me!” cried Viviane. “The boy is taking me at my word!” With an impish giggle, she held Tom closer to her mouth and snapped huge, white teeth an inch or so from his face. The miniature man nearly fainted. Tom’s presence seemed to bring out the playful side in people, much to his chagrin.
“Fear not, Master Thumb,” the priestess insisted, pulling a safe distance away. “I make it a point not to devour Round Table knights. Bad for troop morale.” She smiled and winked at the little man. Rather than immediately pass him back to Merlin, she continued to hold him, seemingly amused by the novelty.
“I thank you for the loan of the Barge of Avalon, my lady,” Merlin said, indicating the small boat.
“Think nothing of it.” Viviane dismissed him with a gesture but her eyes never left the tiny being straddling the lifeline of her palm. Mischievously, she shifted her hand back and forth, beaming as Tom stumbled from one side to the other and almost toppled into the air. She suddenly leaned forward, pursed her lips, and blew on him, giggling as he fell backward onto his rump against her fingers. She then started to gently toss him up and down like a toy ball. Tom was becoming slightly annoyed and more than a little motion sick but there was little he could do. He was helpless in the towering woman’s grasp.
Merlin interrupted impatiently and Viviane at last snapped back to reality. “My lady, forgive me, but we are in haste.”
“Yes, of course. I regret that I cannot accompany you,” she said, allowing Tom to come to rest in her palm. “But I have pressing matters to discuss with the High King. Unrest between the pagans and Christians of the kingdom is worse than ever. And as you so noted, my former pupil Morgan lies at the heart of that conflict, stirring up mischief and sowing the seeds of war. Something must be done before her madness threatens all that we have created.”
“That it must,” agreed Merlin. “Young Thomas may yet play a part in that struggle.” Tom listened curiously to the magician’s remark. With Merlin’s gift of foresight, one could never be certain if the old man was speaking hypothetically or pronouncing a prophecy of events to come.
“In any case,” Viviane continued, “we cannot divest Arthur of both his counselors while you and the little one take a holiday. I must remain here.”
“Indeed,” Merlin said. “I leave the kingdom in your capable hands.”
“Ah, if only these hands could enfold and protect the Island of the Mighty as easily as they do your wee protégé,” the enchantress mused, gazing down at Tom one more time. She lifted him higher and kissed his tiny face, enveloping his entire head in thick, rosy lips.
“May the grace of the gods and the Divine Mother Dôn go with you,” the High Priestess whispered, holding him just inches from her mouth once more. Tom’s vision was filled with flashes of red flesh and the occasional reflection caught in the shiny surface of perfect teeth. By this point, he was reasonably certain she did not intend to eat him, but he couldn’t help being a bit distressed by his proximity to that deadly cavern.
“I hope you find what you are looking for,” Viviane finished. Gently, she lowered Tom into the boat and set him on the wooden crossbeam that served as a bench. Merlin soon followed, sitting across from him on the other side.
“Take care of this one, Sir Tom,” Viviane added, placing a hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “Myrddin may be able to advise kings and perceive the secrets of the future, but I fear he’d lose his head were it not attached to his shoulders.”
The wizard began to stammer an offended retort but the priestess merely laughed and kissed his forehead.
As they set sail, Viviane raised her hand in a sign of farewell and spoke the incantation to summon the mists. Seconds later, the barge was gone.
To be continued...